Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Nothing has meaning...

...until we assign one to it. Each of us. Individually.

No thing, in and of itself, has any inherent meaning. Nor does any person. Or event. Or feeling. Until we each assign one based on our frame of reference.

Keith asked, "Do you feel what I feel?" about his photograph of the deer. The answer for each viewer is probably no, but some may feel similar feelings, if they've had similar experiences to his. Or one may have sentiments about the image based on experiences with Bambi, mothers, motherhood, twins, siblings, freckles, or slightly blurred vision ;-)

Sometimes hearing the artist's story about a work enhances my appreciation of it, but that meaning rarely becomes mine exactly because I don't bring the same frame of reference to the viewing as the artist did to its creation. And ultimately, if I wasn't drawn to the work to begin with, I may not like it substantially more for knowing the artist's thought process.

Here's an image I created several years ago:

Divortium. © 2000 Janet Parke.

If you've seen it before, or are just now seeing it for the first time, you likely had an immediate reaction to it, based on who you were at that very moment in time. You had a response to the shape (spirals – gak!), color (dark orange like yummy/icky pumpkin pie!), and texture (there's that fBm again!). It might have resembled or reminded you of something.

When I created this image, I was in the middle of a divorce. While I didn't intentionally chop the spirals into spokes, I was drawn to this particular structure because it illustrated how my life felt right then – as if my world was breaking apart into pieces and dreams were drifting/fizzling out away from me. But the more I looked at the image and thought about my life, I realized it also very clearly represented – if I chose to view each spiral from the outside moving inward – the pieces of my life coming together instead of falling apart. And ultimately, this image reminds me that my divorce was one of the best things that has ever happened in my life.

If you've ever gone through a similar experience, perhaps you can relate to my feelings. Or not. And maybe, knowing my story, you can see the connections I make. Or not. But the image itself doesn't necessarily hold that meaning for anyone except me. It's not important to me that you see what I see, or feel what I feel, or even remember my story the next time you see it. And whether you connect with my interpretation of it, you likely still feel about the shapes, colors and textures exactly as you did when you first saw it – before you heard my story.

Terry's Portrait of George W. Bush isn't political to me because it doesn't occur to me to process much of anything (including politics) through a political filter (which is not to say I don't have opinions). I don't know what about the image says "W" to Terry, but even if I did, chances are it wouldn't change my initial response to the work one way or another.

I once saw a set of photographs that won top awards in a big digital art contest. The work was acclaimed for its political statement. Since I didn't know who most of the people in the photographs were, the meaning wasn't the least bit political to me. Images themselves don't carry an inherent meaning – they can only ever speak to each of us based on the experiences we bring to their viewing. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Picasso's Guernica doesn't mean anything to me, even with the title, because (due, sadly, to some gaps in my education) I didn't know what Guernica was until I looked it up. A thing doesn't have meaning until we each assign one. And a title can only suggest an interpretation if the viewer shares that frame of reference.

Personally, I don't care if any of my work is understood or appreciated in exactly the way I experience it. I have work that doesn't rock my world, but which seems to be popular with others. And I have works that are very special to me for one reason or another that don't receive much notice. I try to give most of them fairly obscure names that don't impose my intent/meaning but rather encourage viewers to develop their own.

Bagpipe Sunrise. © 2006 Janet Parke.

I recently created a work entitled Bagpipe Sunrise. It's probably not a stretch to see where the "Sunrise" part of the title comes from, since we've all experienced that phenomenon at some point. But the "Bagpipe" reference is much more obscure. It's a silly little spiral – a lightweight bit of nothing – but the work has meaning to me because I know my motivation for creating it in exactly this way. If I told you the story, you might get a chuckle, or think "hmmm, that's an interesting approach," or countless other responses, but your initial reaction to or appreciation for the work – its structure, color, texture, etc. – would probably not change. But I'm not going to share the story – it's probably even better if you just continue to wonder... or create your own, if you care to.


Blogger John S. Meade said...

KC Cole has an excellent discussion of nothing in her book "The hole in the universe"... and she goes into great detail to prove nothing does indeed have meaning.

At first I thought it might be interesting to follow the thought process involved before during and after the creation of a piece. But it's like --> here's the baby and no I'm not showing you what we did to make it. You have an imagination -- use it! (Or pick up a copy of Koestler's "The Act of Creation")
Anyway, stopping to record the environment only makes it part of the piece and the more details the less the mystery. Like Laurie Anderson's "This is the time -- and -- this is the record of the time... O George." And Joni said on one of her live recordings -- "No one ever said to Picasso, 'Wow Pablo! That one's cool -- paint >>that one<< again for us!!"

The interesting thing is our creations that hang on walls corporate, retail or domestic that stand as backdrops for our daily dramas. absorbing emotions so as to be viewed differently (or differentially) later.

As you say, the artist invests (hoping to divest) but the viewer invests too and so the image changes even while it doesn't.

8/22/2006 10:48 AM

Blogger Tim said...

Instead of dark orange, I saw bronze. The spirals reminded me of mechanical gears. I like spirals. Divortium sounds like a city from classical Greece.

I think you're right; we all interpret the imagery differently despite the labels the artist has added.

I guess the imagery is symbolic and has such generic meaning that it can be used to illustrate many different situations.

Art really does speak for itself. I don't actually give my images names at all beyond that of a file name, in which I try to give the work a short nic-name so I can remember what it looks like when I'm using a file manager to load parameter files from a file directory.

Spirals are an interesting type of image. Does the viewer see them as tentacle-like, as in an octopus or squid, or as something floral, like the fiddlehead of a fern or the tendril on a vine or the spiralling arrangement of petals in a rose?

I've often thought that fractal art is like a Rorschach test, and sometimes we don't want to know what the viewer sees!

8/22/2006 1:53 PM

Blogger cruelanimal said...

One of things that most excites me about the possibilities of Orbit Trap is the diversity found among the various contributors. Just as viewers have their own interpretations of artworks, artists also have their own perspectives. Ideally, this blog allows all opinions to be considered with equal validity and respect.

I was once told in a writing workshop that "the poet writes half the poem, and the reader writes the other half." I've always liked the give and take of that statement, for it implies a cooperative venture to produce meaning. While I agree a viewer assigns meaning, that viewer still has to have an initial something -- something made by an artist and perhaps made by design and with specific intentions -- to begin the chain reaction that eventually leads to both interpretation and meaning.

Janet's point of view seems to fall in line with the well-established literary theory of reader-response criticism. This theory, pioneered by Louise Rosenblatt -- and later championed by Stanley Fish, among others -- "recognizes the reader as an active agent who imparts 'real existence' to the work and completes its meaning through interpretation" (Wikipedia). Substitute art for literature and viewer for reader and the similarities here are striking. In fact, a number of art critics, like E. H. Gombrich, have adapted reader-response criticism to be serviceable for visual art.

This particular criticism became fashionable in the 1960s and is generally seen as a revolt against Formalism (where the focus is strictly on the artistic techniques themselves and not on a work’s social or historical context) and the New Criticism (characterized by a close, "objective" examination of the work itself and rejecting any considerations outside of the work -- like the viewer’s response or the artist’s intent or biography).

There seem to be three main tenets of reader-response theory (which I've modified here for the visual arts):

1. It is the viewer and not the artwork that is the most important component.
2. In fact, there is no artwork unless there is a viewer, and only the viewer can say what the artwork is.
3. The viewer creates the artwork as much as the artist does.

So, in short, the viewer’s aesthetic experience with a work of art -- and not the artist or the work itself -- becomes primary.

There is much to like about this approach. An artwork serves as a stimulus for generating ideas in a viewer. Artist and viewer partner together allowing the recipient of art to investigate interpretations and to produce meaning. An artwork is not a static object but instead becomes an event that occurs fresh with each new viewing and interpretative experience.

But there are problems, too. Some critics claim that insisting viewers fill in an artwork's meaning creates an "affective fallacy" -- a confusion between the work itself and the emotional response it produces, which are not necessarily the same thing. Others have noted the contradiction that viewers are forced to be both co-creator (responsible for) and re-creator (not responsible for) any work of art they observe. Still others argue that an artist’s intentions, as well as the historical-social-political contexts of any artwork, are virtually ignored. Later literary theories, like those of the post-structuralists and deconstructionists, would go on to de-emphasize the reader/viewer and argue instead that social/cultural connections and communities are responsible for determining an artwork's meaning.

It seems many fractal artists are primarily concerned with aesthetic considerations -- that is, the "worth" of any fractal image is primarily determined by its pleasing appearance. And, perhaps, that outlook is why some people are uncomfortable with my suggestion that fractals can be politically charged. After all, if fractals can be seen as political art, then their "worth" can indeed be determined by parameters other than aesthetics.

8/23/2006 12:56 AM

Blogger Keith said...

It looks like it is a shared resposibility with most of the weight carried by the viewer.

I get that, but I have seen many artists become hurt, defensive and even angry when their veiwers do not respond with a gushing complement. I wish that every fractal artist would read this blog

8/23/2006 10:56 AM

Blogger Philip Northover said...

Hmm, I don't accept that a viewer who is not the artist is a co-creator of the art. "OK co-creator, how'd ya do that?!"

I do think criticism is an art form. Sometimes when I'm reading it, I have to remind myself what art/artist was the writer talking about.

Must admit to going mostly by aesthetics, but can see there can be other considerations.

8/23/2006 11:29 AM

Blogger Kerry Mitchell said...

I don't understand or agree with the notion that art speaks for itself. If the purpose of displaying art is to communicate something to the viewer, then why not give the viewer as much help as practical in receiving the message? Think of all the times you've said something perfectly clearly (to your mind), and how it was understood as something else by the receiver. How can something like abstract art ever hope to be understood (if a definite message is being sent) without some help from context?

I appreciate the possibility that my argument is based on a fallacy--that art is not (always) presented to communicate. That's ok; if the point is to give the viewer a jumping-off point for his or her own exploration, cool. But then, no one should have any expectations that a particular piece "means" anything or "says" anything.

I also disagree with the notion that an artwork doesn't exist until it is viewed; a tree falling in a forest *does* make a sound, regardless of it being heard by a sentient being. When an image (or other art thing) is committed to a tangible form, then it is (or can be, depending on the artist's motivation) a work of art, even if it's never seen or perceived.

To me, art is about self-expression. I generally don't try too hard to communicate ideas to the viewers through my works. Sometimes, I try to let them know something about what I was thinking or feeling or what went into the piece. Sometimes not. I guess I don't care that much if a viewer comes away from one of my pieces thinking or feeling what I did. If they enjoy it at any level, that's enough for me. If they don't, that's generally ok, too.

8/25/2006 2:23 AM

Blogger Kerry Mitchell said...

When I first read Janet's post, I read it as, "There is not one thing that inherently has meaning." Then, I read the title again and saw, "The absence of everything, 'no thing,' itself has meaning." I personally agree with the first interpretation, but I wonder if the second is possible. Can meaning exist as an objective entity, like energy? Does meaning need to be tied to a particular mind or consciousness? Can a void have meaning? What does it mean? I think it means it's time for me to go to bed. :-)

8/25/2006 2:33 AM

Blogger Tim said...

I think it's a matter of perception. Sensory perception, in the psychological sense -eyes, nerves, brain, reaction, behaviour...

Take for instance the famous drawing of the old woman with the image of the young woman hidden inside the old woman. It was meant to demonstrate the figure/ground concept in perception and how our minds interpret what we see and therefore reality is a product of mental processing and subjective (a property of the subject, person).

Everyone sees the old woman at first, and some will see the young woman a little later. With a little explanation and coaching everyone should see the young woman's image.

My point is; being objective and seeing what's "there" and not what's in our own minds isn't possible. What I think happens in the end is that there are a few common interpretations or perceptions of a piece of art and most people see one of those.

In that sense, beauty really is in the eye of the beholder --it's personal-- but there are only 3 or 4 categories of eyes and we all fall into one of them, and as a result beauty is the eye of the "community" or group who all see the same thing.

8/25/2006 10:34 AM


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